Stamatakis: Symbols distract from constructive debate

By Nick Stamatakis

In high school English class, we all learn the symbolism traditionally connected to certain… In high school English class, we all learn the symbolism traditionally connected to certain objects. Sometimes, a snake will signify evil or the devil. A dove will represent peace. Recognizing these associations is supposed to enhance our reading and help us better appreciate the essence of literary works.

Now as riveting as it all is, this kind of thinking has only the loosest actual application to the real world. Very rarely will a snake indicate an impending murder, and, to my knowledge, doves don’t actually appear at the signing of peace treaties.

Yet something within us still makes us seek out symbolism in our daily lives, whether it is in our personal or public thoughts. We look for things that can somehow crystallize whatever vague thoughts we have into a definitive picture. These aren’t just coincidental things like doves at peace treaties, but they do often include ridiculously irrelevant symbolic gestures that tend to gain a life of their own.

Consider if a hungry McDonald’s customer decided to order a Big Mac next to a PETA activist. There is no meaning behind the decision to order a Big Mac, except that he enjoys his two all-beef patties with special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame-seed bun. But to the activist, or at least to an angry activist, the symbolism would be disgusting — an insensitive display of ignorance and arrogance. A controversy could possibly start and a perfectly meaningless action suddenly has importance.

Where this phenomenon is most detrimental is in politics. In private, it typically results in nothing more than a discussion. In public life, however, it sometimes passes as real discourse. Angry pundits who are looking for anything to sink their teeth into — especially when there are no Big Macs around — talk endlessly about meaningless symbolism and stall substantive dialogue. There is often no real policy implication, and meaningful debate slows down to almost nothing.

Take the issue of presidential leisure. For whatever reason, huge symbolism and importance is often extrapolated from whatever the president decides to do. Dana Perino, George W. Bush’s former press secretary, said of one of Barack Obama’s recent vacations over Memorial Day, “symbolically that probably was not a very good choice.” Bush himself quit playing golf during the war because, in his words, “playing golf during war just sends the wrong signal.” Bill Clinton stopped his high-profile, celebrity-filled vacations because, as his pollster Dick Morris put it, “hobnobbing with celebrities” on the Vineyard was bad for his image.

In reality, these leisure decisions had absolutely no effect on policy. Our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, spent his leisure time skinny dipping in the Potomac, but that didn’t lead him to altering public indecency laws. Similarly, your decision to vacation in Myrtle Beach doesn’t lead you to having any different ideas about the Iraq War.

Instead, all these vacations became encumbering public images that stunted actual debate. Angry pundits like Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity, looking for something to be angry about, screamed about alleged symbolism and messages. Both men did special reports solely on the disgraceful actions of their opponent.

It’s not that all these discussions are necessarily wrong or bad. After all, the PETA activist has the right to be legitimately angry, just like the pundits do. Private outrage is OK.

But government is supposed to be above this. Somehow attaching war policy to George Bush’s golf game or economic policy to Barack Obama’s vacation gets tiring really quickly and doesn’t do anything to move the debate forward.

So is Ronald Reagan ordering new White House china truly a meaningful indication of an aristocratically minded president? And is the fact that Obama can’t bowl really a symbol of his superiority complex? Come on. Sometimes, a snake is just a snake and a dove is just a dove.

Write Nick at [email protected]